Monday, June 07, 2010

“Homodevotion” to the Body of Christ

While looking for something pertinent to share for Corpus Christi Sunday, I came across Donald L. Boisvert’s and Robert Goss’ thoughts on Christian “homodevotion” to the crucified body of Christ, contained in Boisvert’s 2004 book Sanctity and Male Desire: A Gay Reading of Saints.

Now, while it’s true that I’ve found myself drawn to the physical beauty of the male body depicted in certain images of Christ crucified (see, for example, the image at left), I wouldn’t say that I’ve ever, in the words of Boisvert, “worshiped the handsomely glorious body of Jesus hung from the cross.” And I can’t say I find, as Robert Goss does, the tortured body of Jesus “utterly sexually desirable.” To do so, it seems to me, would be to get stuck in the realm of surface things, namely, someone’s depiction of Christ crucified. I can’t help but look beyond any such depiction to the horrific reality of what crucifixion actually involved. I mean, however beautiful or erotic an artist, consciously or unconsciously, may have depicted Christ, the bottom line is that we're viewing a human being suffering a torturous and brutal death.

Still, according to Boisvert, some gay men – those who feel “broken and spurned” by the church, for instance – do indeed experience comfort, affirmation, and healing in homodevotion to the “paradigmatic figure of the Christ.” Actually, this could be another reason why the idea of homodevotion doesn’t particularly resonate with me. For although there are times when I definitely find myself feeling pissed off and/or disturbed by the clerical caste’s uninformed and damaging perspective on homosexuality (actually, make that sexuality), I don’t feel “broken and spurned” by such a perspective. I simply refuse to give it that much power over me. And I certainly don’t limit “the church” to its clerical caste.

I would maintain that in 2010, gay men in the Western world no longer experience the level of oppression that those who grew up prior to Stonewall endured. Similarly, I think the majority of Catholics – gay and straight – who have came of age in the years after Vatican II, have been spared that type of religious instruction in sexual matters that was dominated by fear and guilt. Catholics have, by and large, evolved spiritually. True, members of the church’s clerical caste have chosen to stagnate or even regress, but, again, this clerical leadership isn’t “the church.”

My point is that I don’t believe that many gay Catholic men today are “fix[ing] their tearful eyes on the crucified Jesus” because of feelings of hurt and rejection by the Vatican. I could be wrong, but I think that most gay people have done one of two things. They’ve either realized, as
Roger Haight points out, that “spiritual nourishment is a higher value than institutional loyalty” and so have left to find such nourishment elsewhere, or they’ve found or created nourishing communities within the church that provide them the support and strength to stay and (hopefully) work for reform. Of course, either leaving or staying in the mindful ways outlined above requires a certain level of self-acceptance and -respect. Staying and working for reform also requires an awareness that, as Rosemary Radford Ruether says, “Catholic does not equal the Vatican.”

Of course that’s not to say that many people do not indeed experience the Catholic Church’s official teaching on homosexuality as deeply hurtful; a form of “spiritual violence,” as one mother of a gay child explained it to me. Accordingly, Boisvert’s and Goss’ rationale for homodevotion is not without merit or insight, as you’ll see from the following excerpt. I welcome your thoughts on what they say.


Worshiping the handsomely glorious body of Jesus hung from the cross, gay men can enter into an act of erotic and spiritual intimacy with their lord. As they kneel and bring their gaze upward, they see suspended in front of them, inviting in his semi-naked vulnerability, his arms open wide to embrace them, the broken and desirable body of the one who was all things to all people, the source of their need, and truly its ultimate fulfillment.

This need to commune with the physical body of Jesus, or with any of its sacred parts, shares in a long-standing tradition of Christian mysticism. One need only think of the opposite- or same-sex erotic imagery of Saints Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, or the stories of ecstatic medieval nuns communing with the radiantly glorified foreskin of Jesus in fits of religious rapture. Such moments of erotic grace and revelation symbolize intimate divine-human congress, but they also elevate the human person to the status of sacred consort, to the role and position of the divine object of desire. There can be great power in such imagery, and there can be especially great power if the person is socially and culturally marginal: a woman or a homosexual, for example. Intimate union with the divine, a privileged access to the holy, bestows communal and spiritual stature, just as it engenders a form of personal wholeness: acceptance in the eyes of God; desired and touched by God; summoned forth by God’s love. As gay men fix their tearful eyes on the crucified Jesus, infinitely desirable in his gashed and vulnerable beauty, they find themselves transfigured into his spiritual partners, and they can imagine themselves one in and with him, lovers in a dangerous time.

Robert Goss [in his book Queering Christ] summarizes such feelings in these words: “I and many other Catholic men, priests and laymen, have found the naked Jesus utterly sexually desirable, calling us to pursue a relationship, and many of us have discovered that we were utterly desirable to Jesus.”

Christian homodevotion to Jesus, to use Goss’ expression, has a long and honored pedigree, and has included a variety of different theological conceptions and devotional approaches. It has also functioned as a positive venue for gay men in appropriating for themselves the central tenets and imagery of the Christian spiritual tradition, though very often in the guise of more orthodox religious language. This process, as Goss points out, is a dynamic one: we find Jesus desirable, but, in turn, we find ourselves desirable in his sight. As gay men, we are thereby reaffirmed and confirmed in our basic humanity, but also in our sexuality. Though this may seem fairly obvious, it can assume a revolutionary dimension in the context of an openly homophobic religious tradition such as Catholicism, for example.

Homodevotion, whether subtle or blatant, to the paradigmatic figure of the Christ subverts and destabilizes many religious claims over our bodies and our lives. In embracing the broken body of Jesus, in all of its precious parts, we also embrace and begin to heal our own broken and spurned bodies. Bodies are really what devotion is all about: hungry, desperate bodies; bodies in the throes of passionate physical union and prayerful ecstasy; bodies caressed, anointed, and embraced; bodies adored, cuddled, and worshiped. The language of spiritual devotion is not much different from that of human love, if perhaps only in degrees.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Why Jesus is My Man
Corpus Christi (2007)
Celebrating and Embodying Divine Hospitality – Reflections on Corpus Christi Sunday (2008)
Reflections on Corpus Christi Sunday (2009)
The Inherent Sensuality of Roman Catholicism
The Archangel Michael as Gay Icon
The Allure of St. Sebastian
“From Byzantine Daddy to Baroque Twink”: Charles Darwent on the Journey of St. Sebastian
Sergius and Bacchus: Martyrs, Saints, and Lovers
Sometimes I Wonder . . .
Officially Homophobic, Intensely Homoerotic
Keeping All the Queens Under One Roof
Let's Face It: The Catholic Church is a Gay Institution
The Many Manifestations of God's Loving Embrace
Gay People and the Spiritual Life
The Gifts of Homosexuality

Image 1: Artist unknown.
Images 2 and 4: Scenes from a production of Terrence McNally's play Corpus Christi.
Image 3: Artist unknown.
Image 5: “Deposed Christ Hugging St. Bernard Clairvaux” by Francisco Ribalta.


Mareczku said...

I don't know about this. I agree with some of what you are saying but for myself I don't find suffering to be erotic or sexy. I am a very non-violent person and somewhat non-sexual (or passive) so some of this is just beyond me. I see our love for Christ as beyond the sexual.

Michael J. Bayly said...

Hi Mark,

Just for clarification, when you say "I agree with some of what you are saying," do you mean me when you say "you" or Donald Boisvert and Robert Goss? Either way, I'd be interested in hearing what it is you agree with.



Mareczku said...

I pretty much agree with your comments at the beginning of the piece. For example, crucifixion is torture and that isn't sexy. What Roisvert and Goss say is a little too much for me.

woodyhead said...

A very interesting read..